Seven observations that emerge from 21 years in the heart of the city
EASTSIDE & WEST INDIANAPOLIS. I have invested most of my adult life working
in Indianapolis urban neighborhoods. I first served as Pastor of
Shepherd Community and a director of its then-fledgling, now-bustling
compassionate ministry. I then succeeded the beloved John H. Boner at
the Near Eastside community center now named in his honor. I was then
asked to guide Horizon House to rebuild and reboot its day services to
homeless neighbors. Coming full circle, I served as Pastor of West
Morris Street Free Methodist Church, a 95-year old congregation in the
southwest shadow of downtown.
NEVER MORE ALIVE AND HOPEFUL. Twenty-one of the past 24 years, I’ve been privileged to serve in or in relationship to the
heart of the city. During this time, I have felt welcomed, invited, drawn
forward, empowered, and blessed. I’ve been scolded, doubted,
intimidated, stretched, and provoked. I’ve never felt more alive, more
on a learning curve, more opened up to changing realities, more
overwhelmed by immensities, or more hopeful of possibilities. The gift
and challenge of community has taken hold in me. You might say that I am
ruined for any other way of life or vocation because of these community
MY TEACHERS AND TRAINERS. Caring
neighbors, faithful congregations, committed activists, and supporting
partners have shaped the way I view the city, the region, and the world.
Out of this, I will forever be seeking to encourage community and
foster the circumstances in which interdependence, trust, faith,
hospitality, sacrifice, and neighborliness are the norm, not the
occasional exception. I jotted down the following reflections on some of
what I have learned from serving in Indy’s urban neighborhoods, and for
these I am grateful:
1. THERE IS NO GREATER CHALLENGE OR DEEPER CALLING THAN BECOMING AND BEING A NEIGHBOR.
Whether across the street, region, or world, we never max this most
basic, humanizing challenge. It's far easier to say "neighbor" than be
one. But with every neighborly action, we realize more of that for which
2. IT IS ONE THING TO MOVE INTO, LIVE OR WORK IN A COMMUNITY; IT IS ANOTHER MATTER TO MOVE TOWARD COMMUNITY.
Proximity is of little value if it is not combined with opening one’s
heart to one’s neighbors and getting involved. Community is, first of
all, a movement of the heart.
3. THOUGHTFUL LOCAL ACTIONS
HAVE GREATER POWER TO SHAPE COMMUNITIES FOR THE GOOD THAN
WELL-INTENTIONED POLICIES PLANNED AND IMPLEMENTED FROM AFAR.
Our world is more likely to be changed for the better from a strategic
urban neighborhood initiative than it is from Washington, D.C. or the
United Nations building.
4. AS A COROLLARY, I CONFIRM THE ADAGE THAT A FEW THOUGHTFUL PEOPLE ACTING TOGETHER MAKE A BIG DIFFERENCE.
Effective neighborhood actions and social service interventions are
fueled by a few who believe it can be done, and they do it. Who knows
what can happen if more get involved and act more strategically for the
common good at local levels?
5. IN OFFERING HOSPITALITY
TO STRANGERS, WE WIDEN THE CIRCLE OF COMMUNITY AND ANTICIPATE
TRANSFORMATION UNIQUE TO SUCH OPEN-HEARTEDNESS. Some of the
greatest gifts I have received have come from people who appeared to
have little to give, no one to commend them, and whose stake in the
community is generally overlooked. Within safe boundaries, learning to
recognize and receive the contributions of otherwise disregarded
citizens can be one of our city’s most valuable assets.
WHERE AGREEMENT ON AN ISSUE IS NOT POSSIBLE, THERE CAN STILL BE RESPECT
FOR DIVERSITY OF PATHS AND EXPLORATION OF NEW COMMON GROUND. I
have learned to reject most either/or, win/lose, good guy/bad guy
framing of conflicts and community issues. Common ground is there, but
it must be sought for and cultivated with a persevering passion, as if
everything depended on it.
7. DEVELOPING EMERGING LEADERSHIP MUST BE A PRIORITY FOR EACH CONGREGATION AND COMMUNITY ORGANIZATION.
The value of being “community based” is always just a generation of
leadership away from extinction. Some non-profits have lost or seriously
distorted this component of their mission and leadership without even
realizing it. Every organization in the community owes it to itself,
the community, and the future to grant the time and resources needed to
help emerging leaders develop community networks and explore the
challenges and opportunities of formal and informal neighborhood and